In the summer of 1961 on the Hemingway ranch in Ketchum, Idaho, Ernest Hemingway's young secretary, Louella, is plotting to become his fifth wife and heir to his estate. Rex De Havilland, an old friend of the author and now a struggling Hollywood producer, arrives to secure the film rights to Hemingway's life. Anxious to achieve his goal by any means possible, he tries to convince Hemingway's wife Mary the project will give the ailing writer a new lease on life. Hemingway, however, fails to succumb to the charms of either Louella or Rex, and he banishes both from his home before committing suicide with a shot to his head.
Music: John Robinson
Lyrics: Roberto Trippini and John Robinson
Libretto: Roberto Trippini
Director: Pat Garrett*
Set and costumes: Christopher Woods
Lighting: Mike Robertson
* not the Pat Garrett killed in the shoot-out with Billy the Kid. Unfortunately for us all
Rex: Christopher Howell
Mary: Helen Dallimore
Ernest Hemmingway: James Graeme
Louella: Tammy Joelle
“It’s like asking a fire hydrant what it thinks of dogs”
Well, when so many people are so disparaging of something, you’ve just got to go see it really, haven’t you? When its being referred to not as Too Close to the Sun but To Close on the Sunday? When the closing notices go up three days after the opening night? When the writer’s other hits are such popular and long-running works as Leonardo!, Which Witch?, Behind the Iron Mask and Botero Forever? Hold me back!
Actually, yes, please hold me back. Preferably hold me back in my seat with broad leather straps so that I can cope with the rising tide of hysteria engendered by lyrics such as “Make Yourself One With The Gun” and lines such as “My whang-dang-doodle needs a crankshaft to get it going” or “I’m not going to stop living until I’m totally dead”.
Honestly, this was so painful that writing a review becomes quite difficult. I want to pour scorn on the writers at the same time as pouring pity on the cast. Even the fact that its running (but hurry, not for long!) at The Comedy Theatre is embarrassing to point out. Because, really, this one should never have got past the “Let’s write a musical about Ernest Hemingway committing suicide” conversation (a conversation that in all likelihood took place about 3am while some damned good skunk was being passed round the table). Roberto Trippini deserves a round of applause and an award for his sheer self-deluded arrogance, if nothing else. Hemmingway was a dinosaur, a macho shithead who shot, smoked, boozed and screwed his way through life, before sticking a shotgun into his mouth and splattering his brains all over the walls (“Hello? Is that the E-Z-Clean maid service? This is Mrs. Hemmingway. Can you come early tonight? And bring some extra scrubbing brushes. And a lot of Cilit Bang”). I doubt that he was a big fan of show tunes, Hollywood musicals or people tapdancing round his living room. Especially those doing jazz hands at the same time. Had he met anyone doing such a thing, their head would probably have been mounted on the wall between the elephant and the bison, with an engraved plate saying “Faggot, Ketchum, Idaho” underneath. So writing a musical about Hemmingway is bizarre, to say the least. Writing a musical about him committing suicide is off the doozy-scale, wouldn’t you agree? Mount said musical in the West End during the worst recession since the 1930s and its as much commercial suicide as Hemmingway rug-splattering version. The other 38 people in the auditorium last night thought so too. In fact, so gripped by the action was the woman in the row behind us (note, not a woman – the woman; she was the only person in it) that she had time to take a call from someone at home and advise them that “There should be a squeezy bottle of Marmite in the cupboard. Go to bed and I’ll see you tomorrow”. Real thrilling stuff. Did they find the Marmite? Why were they going to bed so early? Was there a connection between them wanting both Marmite and an early night? Alas, we will never know, because the people on stage were talking too loud for me to hear properly.
Honestly, either work in the acting profession is so shit-scarce at the moment or the cast had been liberally plied with Mogadon before the first read-through but I really don’t know why any of the people concerned hadn’t dug their eyes out with spoons rather than have this on their CV. Helen Dallimore was good enough to create a major role in Wicked a couple of years back, so what is she doing in what could be subtitled Ernie, Get Your Gun? Tammy Joelle will presumably disappear from sight and never be heard of again until her neighbours complain about the smell coming from her flat and she’s found dead having been eaten by her dogs.. Having read a review of her performance which said that her singing would best be appreciated by canine members of the audience, I thought that might be a little harsh, but having actually heard her last night, I’m somewhat inclined to provide the dogs with forks, a plate of fava beans and a nice chianti, just to save time. Jay Benedict, who was to have played Rex, at least had the good sense to “injure his knee” at an early preview and send his understudy on, putting him on a par with the man who cancelled his booking on the Titanic after having had his palm read at the fair. And James Graeme was quite the happiest, jolliest suicide this town is going to see until another banker snorts 8 grams of coke and throws himself off the balcomy at ChinaWhite.
Certainly one for the dustbin of history. Lovers of absolute twaddle should hurry along to the Comedy Theatre before the show’s 10th (and final) performance. But don’t hurry too fast. You might get there in time for curtain-up. As we left, a woman whose face had the pallor of someone staggering up a railway embankment after a derailment clutched wildly at my arm and stammered “Well, that was an experience, wasn’t it?!” It soitonly was, Ernest, it soitonly was.
What the critics said: